Art is the sedimentary record and petrified bones of communal tenure on this rock, and there are few art forms more potent than speculative/science fiction when it comes to showing the world what it is and what it could be. What it is is a scary, fragmented place full of vitriol and anger. What it could be is a peaceful, introspective place. How do we get there?
In our fine genre right now we’ve got puppies with rabies, we’ve got puppies with issues of depression. The doggies in the windows could use some serious hugs. With all the turmoil regarding the 2015 Hugos it’s a good time to ask what is speculative/science fiction? What’s it supposed to do?
It’s great space battles between good and evil; it’s strange alien beings with even stranger names. And it is so much more than that. In 1969 seminal novelist J.G. Ballards summed the genre as: “…above all a prospective form of fiction concerned with the immediate present in terms of the future rather than the past.” (The New S.F., 1969)
The present in terms of the future is an ever-changing, ever-inclusive, ever-expanding thing. To go against that is entropy. And bogus. Grody even.
Sam Moskowitz, from his book Seekers of Tomorrow, took it a little further: “…a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.”
Before its collapse toward dystopia in the twentieth century, the dream of the Utopia in speculative fiction blossomed in the nineteenth century. “The word ‘Utopia’ (coined by Sir Thomas More) stands in common usage for the ultimate in human folly or human hope—vain dreams of perfection in a Never Never Land, or rational efforts to remake man’s environment and his institutions and even his own erring nature, so as to enrich the possibilities of the common life.” (The Story of Utopias, Lewis Mumford, 1962)
The Nineteenth century Utopia was closely connected with the growth of Socialist thought and shared Socialism’s tendency to think in global terms. Stories by stalwarts such as Theodor Hertzka, Edward Bellamy, Jack London, and H.G. Wells (who, we will note, was a time-traveling woman according to Warehouse 13 and we are cool with that) surprisingly expressed some form of socialist system with minimal government interference (Tea Party mofos!) and the people all working as one for the common peace and good (not Tea Party mofos). Varied visions of worlds without social, economic, or political strife, and thus little need for pew-pew expansionist space battles featuring men in tights and shoulder epaulets. Not that there weren’t. There have always been men in tights.
By the mid-1900’s the antagonists of the Utopia took root. Writers went pre-Katniss on the public’s ass. Up to and after World War 2, anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian works either satirizing or paralleling Germany under Hitler and the Nazi regime dominated. These stories, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, warned of humanity’s demise, albeit not usually in a Gorthos Fleet attack kind of way; more along the lines of the spirit, the essence of creativity and civility, being sucked away, leaving a world of sad mechanistic zombies or docile hedonists (Kardashians) under totalitarian/authoritarian rule. This modulation between Utopia and Dystopia continued side by side.
While the dichotomies slapped one another, Empire as government deftly reasserted itself. The Fifties, probably from lack of imagination and/or conviction, churned out a buttload of “space operas.” Spec Fiction took a political rest, resorting to the hoary “all-American spaceman battles evil Galactic Empire” nerdy cousin of Flash Gordon (thankfully not exclusively; Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, in addition to being one of the coolest book titles ever, is generally hailed as being the standard-bearer for thoughtful, well-written, multi-faceted space opera.) With such an unusual regression in tone, in that the Fifties (which we can all pretty much agree is that nebulous yesteryear many want to take us back to) was one of America’s more turbulent times, what does this say about The God of Turbulence? We run to the comforting teat of fallacious memory in its frightening shadow.
But even at its most simplistic pew-pew, speculative fiction has always been an optimistic medium as a whole. It was only in the mid-and late Sixties that real anger, bleakness, and utter despair about the future of humanity became moderately commonplace. This “New Wave” of lit was swept along by that greatest sweeper we have: war. Vietnam.
Strong opposition against the Vietnam War manifested in demonstrations throughout the United States. People refused to tolerate the war on the official assumption that there was no alternative other than war. The American system was attacked as edging toward fascism, a charge which had a marked effect on the writers, especially in the ripples of the McCarthy era. Spec Fic writers decided to let themselves be heard with no holds barred.
Among them, Norman Spinrad and Ursula K. LeGuin stood on top. Spinrad’s story The Big Flash told of cynical political manipulation (say it again…slowly) by the youth culture, not venturing to take sides but rather telling the story from both the government’s and the youths’ points of view, questioning each. Another Spinrad work, Bug Jack Barron, told of a government of corrupt and crooked stooges ordered about by the head of a huge corporation (have a Koch and a smile). And when it comes to LeGuin, The Word for World Is Forest remains “one of the strongest science fiction stories ever written about colonial exploitation.” (The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls, 1979)
Speculative fiction had one mission in the seventies, and performed it to the utmost of its abilities: Blow. Our. Minds. Joanna Russ, The Female Man; Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren; Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake. By the end of the seventies, the Once and Future queen of speculative fiction, Octavia Butler, gave us time travel as literary masterpiece, Kindred.
Diverse? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Well-written. Huge yes. Comfortably shared shelf space with adventures and purely escapist fare? Yes. The past is the present is the future. There were squabbles between different writing camps but there was no internet to make every squabble an “event.” And there certainly were no organized factions hell bent on dismissing anything and anyone outside their idea of yesteryear.
I never thought I’d miss the seventies.
Jump to the Eighties: a bunch of folks with one hand always cold. Works here can be seen as mild echoes of the previous two decades. The number of power mad governments heading toward destruction or dystopia increased thanks to the twisted bromance of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev under a rocking soundtrack of mutually-assured-destruction. Nukes. 1999 by way of purple rain.
In the book world everything got thrown into one mix, almost with a wonderful—yet commercial—sense of anarchy: flash, dash, optimism, despair, weighty issues and flighty romps. Even the venerated Robert Heinlein slapped meat between the bread of his sammich with works like Friday (a book that, today, is problematic as hell and rightfully so), in which the United States had crumpled into politically-independent country-states tottering on the edge of disaster. Ol’ Bobby, through his characterization of the agency which tries to salvage some semblance of order in the new American world by basically being meta-humans surreptitiously babysitting a bunch of hyoo-man brats was a bit more subversive to the status quo than most tend to credit. Even earlier works such as Starship Troopers (in which the irony of fighting an organized, violent, hive culture by being an organized, violent, hive culture) presents the war on terror before Dubya thought to don a flight suit. There’s a lot that can be said in the framework of military and guns and aliens if one chooses a voice to do so.
In the Nineties we looked to the stars and to the nanos. We became cyber. We became explorers. Some of us learned Virtual Fu. Some of us turned humanity in for a good steak. We saw YA books rise in stature, because the young need the benefits of heightened imagination the most as they inherit a truly brave new world, one their parents and grandparents might have actively fought against coming. We saw books more and more as series, hand in hand with the rise of cable television.
There was an amazing amount of diversity in nineties spec fiction: Hard sci fi; Fantasy sci fi; Military sci fi; Humanist leaning sci fi; Lois McMaster Bujold; Steven Barnes; Kim Stanley Robinson; Connie Willis; Tananarive Due. New names mixed with old, and new ideas merged to become intriguing again. Women, “minorities,” new writers, old masters, increasingly produced fiction that grabbed us by the shoulders and solidly pointed us toward a future that—as technology became pure commodity—was rapidly much more near than far away.
Where are we now? With all the skullduggery and Game of Thrones-worthy alliance-making this year behind what’s supposed to be the speculative fiction genre’s shining hour, what wars are truly being fought in order to fulfill the mission of advancing the imaginative understanding of physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy? I’m not going to dignify racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Anybody wants to claim those, that’s their pile of shit to sleep on.
Art should always do something more than fit comfortably inside the straw of juice boxes. It should present a gift.
Carl Sagan, in Growing Up with Science Fiction, said this in 1980: “The greatest human significance of science fiction may be as thought experiments. Or they may be conceived as attempts to minimize future shock or as contemplations of alternative destinies. We desperately need an exploration of alternative futures…”
We can’t do that by being insular children anymore.
Speculative fiction takes pride in its freedom of the imagination, in the novelty and boldness of its concepts; it has the capacity to germinate change more than any other art form, because it takes our wondrous imagination and injects it with growth hormones. It is liberation. In this sense it serves a good and worthy purpose. It has never been perfect, but it also has never been as homogeneous as many would like it to be. N.K. Jemisin, Marguerite Reed, Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel Jose Older, Ken Liu, Jennifer Marie Brissett, Minister Faust, Chuck Wendig, Karen Lord, the late Eugie Foster, Milton Davis: authors engaging gender, ethnicity, political tone, range of subject matter, the status quo, and what it means to be varied citizens of a world born of many.
Any time diversity is railed against, one knows some good is happening to cause it. The current rampant political climate of exclusion and faux-exceptionalism can’t sustain itself another decade. It won’t even last a few years. We don’t even need the writing on the wall. The writing is in glorious books that speak to our joined humanity rather than our petty fears.
Like Dr. Sagan said, “We desperately need an exploration of alternative futures.” Because, guess what? Some might deride current trends as “diversity” or social pandering, or some such dipshit avoidance mechanism, but we writers who are out here in love with humanity, we call it Reality.
So that’s what speculative fiction is. That’s what it does. It positions reality in front of our faces. It is a wonderfully huge slice of cake beside a wonderfully huge slice of pie. It is everything we want and everything we need, especially when we didn’t know we needed either.
So here’s the cake of all our yesteryears.
Get you some.